25 July 2007

New Horizons

Well, that day is finally here. I'm going home today. Or at least I think I'm going home today. When leaving Russia I have a policy of never making definitive declarations until the plane has lifted off. But to be on the safe side, I never celebrate until the plane touches down on American soil. After all, it's better not to get your hopes up in case Russia decides to have one of her "moments" right at the time you think you are leaving.

I'm too deeply embedded in my experience here to be able to reflect on it properly at the moment. Besides, I haven't finished packing the Lenins either. So reflections will have to wait a bit.

Of course, this brings up the question of the future of this blog. On the one hand, the blog isn't much without Russia's participation. She has provided all the material, while I simply relay it to a (semi) captivated audience. I somehow doubt that "My Life" from a sleepy college town will be quite so intriguing as dogs that ride the metro. Or pickles. I suppose I could convert to Russia punditism and comment on more contemporary political issues, but there are plenty of people doing that already. Plus, I have a dissertation to get writing.

But not to despair. I do still have a few stories waiting in reserve and I hope to put them on (digital) paper eventually. For example, I never got around to writing about the vendors on Arbat that assault you with "fyuh khats from reeel minks!" ("fur hats from real mink," except it's really muskrat, not mink). Or the guillotine doors of metro cars that put the French Revolution to shame. And the metro turnstile barrier that almost preemtively took the life of my unborn child (if you've been to Moscow, you know what I mean). Oh, plus there's Russia's magically soft roads - so soft and cushy that cab drivers insist that seatbelts are unnecessary.

But even better than these memories from the past is the promise of future stories. It turns out that (for better or for worse) I've received funding to do research for about 6 months next year in Ukraine and Belarus. So, starting in April 2008 Darkness at Noon will begin broadcasting live from Kiev and Minsk. If the Ukrainians and Belarussians are anything like their wacky Russian bretheren, there are sure to be some good stories coming down the line...

In the meantime, check back here occasionally, as I'm sure I'll have some stories about the wonderful process of obtaining a visa to Belarus. Eh, how hard can it be?

In closing, let me just thank all of you who have been dedicated (and semi-dedicated) readers over the past several months. While I don't seek out trouble, there are more than a few occasions when I pushed my boundaries and went a little farther than I'm used to so that I would have something to write for you. I have no doubt that I'm a better person for it and my experiences were that much richer for it. So thanks for prodding me into dark corners and sharing the adventures that come of it.

Oh, and I'd also like to thank all the people who arrive here via Google looking for "Lenins n Things." You have inflated my counter statistics beyond my wildest dreams. I hope you found what you were looking for.

До скорого,

12 July 2007

Some Lenins I've Known

I thought it would be a good idea to sift through 7 years-worth of photos I've taken in Russia and her neighbors and put up an album of some of the best Lenin statues I've photographed. Some of the photos pre-date digital cameras and are a little old/grainy looking, but you get the picture (pun intended?) So here they are...

Finland Station, St. Petersburg:

From this angle, Lenin gives you a thumbs-up: "Hey, isn't revolution GREAT?!!"

Lenin with entourage at Oktyabrskaya Square, Moscow:

Lenin guarding the grounds at VDNKh:

He looks lost in thought. Probably thinking about getting a tasty shaurma from one of the nearby vendors:

Lenin at Sergiev Pasad, paradoxically former seat of the Russian Orthodox Church:

This Lenin stood next to the old Gorbushka, back when it was a sprawling outdoor bazaar. Someone has spray painted "John Lennon" on the base. I've never been able to find this Lenin again, though it probably doesn't help that I've never tried:

Inside the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. As this one is marble, it would be VERY expensive to ship home, I think:

At the outdoor sculplture park next to the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow:

Inside the WWII museum in Minsk:

Also in Minsk:

Lenin pointing at Japan from Vladivostok: "Hey! Does that sushi stuff come with mayonnaise?"

In Volgograd (Stalingrad), Lenin says, "See how nice it is now that we've rebuilt our city?"

The largest bust of Lenin in the world, located in Ulan Ude. I'll confess that this is not my picture. When I was there, it was the middle of the night, it was December, I was sick, and only halfway through my trip on the Trans-Siberian. Needless to say, my own photos didn't turn out very good...

Tambov: Reverend Lenin says, "Can I get an AMEN!"

In Lipetsk, Comrade Lenin doesn't say much. There's hardly any traffic through Lenin Square (recently renamed Cathedral Square because there's a, um, cathedral there). I think he gets lonely.

In Nizhny Novgorod, Lenin says, "Look at the wonderful shopping mall they've built next to me. Maybe I was wrong about this whole 'capitalism is evil thing...'"

For the most comprehensive archive of Lenin monuments in Russia, the former Soviet Union, and around the world, take a look at monulent.ru (in Russian), which has Lenin monuments organized by city. Bet you never knew there were so many!

07 July 2007

Petersburg White Nights

Here's a few more pictures from my recent trip to St. Petersburg. These were taken between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am. For someone who grew up in a place where 9:00 is the latest the sun ever sets in the summer, seeing it still light out at midnight is a bizarre experience.

The event I photographed was a concert and outdoor party thrown for the city's high school graduates, who had graduated that day. As you can see from the photos, there were hordes of kids everywhere. Nevsky Prospect was closed from Gostiniy Dvor all the way down to the river, and people were constantly streaming towards the Winter Palace.

I finally bailed at 1:00, partly because I was tired and partcly because it looked like things could easily get out of hand. People were starting to get drunk, rowdy, and pushy, and there were a few moments where someone smaller than I would have had a hard time holding their own against the pulsing crowd.

As I walked back up Nevsky Prospect, the masses continued to flow toward the concert. The street was full of broken glass - as people finished their beers, they would set the bottle on the side of the road. Sooner or later someone would trip over it or deliberately kick it and it would shatter on the pavement. Some of the ornamental iron bollards along Nevsky were ripped out of their foundations, often prying up the pavement stones with them.

To the credit of the St. Petersburg municipal services, by 9:00 the next morning the entire length of the street was spotless - all the glass had been removed and all the bollards and chains had been restored to their original positions (though some were tilting a bit precariously).

In any case, that's enough from me. Here are the pictures:

Guest appearance by St. Petersburg governor (and potential Putin dark-horse successor?) Valentina Matvienko:

This is my favorite photo: two lines (there's another one on the right that's not pictured) of OMON officers guarding..... an extension cord.

03 July 2007

Soviet Jokes

In looking for the Lenin triple-wide joke, I came across the following site that is loaded with tons of classic Soviet-era jokes (translated into English), organized by theme. This should keep you all busy (and laughing) for at least a few days...

Laughing Under the Covers


(PS - the above cartoon is the Pulizer-prize winning work of Jim Borgman...)

Moscow Through Her Eyes

The Mrs. arrives in Moscow tomorrow. After not having seen her for several months now, I'm nearly going insane with anticipation, but luckily I have some pickles and beet salad to comfort me for the next few hours.

Though this is my fifth stint in Russia, this will be her first time over here. I'll confess, while Russia has always been a major part of my life, it's been a surprisingly small part of our relationship. While there was less of a boundary while we were dating in college, now Russia tends to get filed under "work," and is thus not something we spend a lot of time discussing at home in the evenings. After all, we have other mutual interests and hobbies, and we each have our own individual interests. Russia happens to be one of mine, in addition to being my career.

I also think that my fascination (bordering on obsession) with Russia has always seemed to her as one of my eccentricities, something she doesn't question but is patiently tolerant of even if she doesn't understand it. When we first met there were two Lenins, and I'm sure they raised an eyebrow. By the time we got married, there were 14, and by then they had just become part of the scenery. Now that there are 36 Lenins, I'm not sure what her reaction will be. Actually, I do know: she'll laugh at them (or me?), shake her head a few times, and then propose that we rearrange the Lenins to act out a fighting scene or something. "But they're all friends!" I protested the last time she suggested this...

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to seeing her in Russia. And I don't just mean seeing her, I mean seeing her experience Russia. I want to see how she reacts to the "other woman" in my life (Mother Russia), the woman who has kept us apart for the last several months and made me smell perpetually of garlic. I want to see what Russia looks like through my best friend's eyes since I know it will look entirely different than how I see it.

To be honest, I secretly want her to fall in love with Russia too. Maybe not as head-over-heels as I did (although I won't protest if she wants to start her own Soviet statuary collection), but enough so that it's not so foreign to her anymore. It reminds me of the Soviet-era joke stating that newlyweds needed a triple-wide bed because "Lenin is always with us." In our case, Russia is always with us, and while the Mrs. laid down the law when we moved in together ("No Lenins in the bedroom" were her exact words), I'm hoping that Russia will become a bigger part of our lives together.

And I suppose what I'm really hoping for is that some of my "eccentricities" will be explained when she sees the place that created them...

So, I hope you'll forgive me if I'm lax about posting during the next couple of weeks, as we'll be wandering all over Moscow, St. Petersburg, and possibly even Ulyanovsk (birthplace of Lenin and home to the Lenin memorial museum and complex!!!) discovering ourselves and the mysterious woman called "Rossiya."

02 July 2007

Something has happened to me...

Yesterday I moved out of my lodgings with Host Family and into a fabulous and enormous apartment for my remaining month in Moscow.

This has been coming for some time. Host family had informed me upon my arrival in January that their beloved son (who lives in America and is clearly their favorite child based on the way they talk about him) would be visiting for an unspecified amount of time in July. Thus, I was to find another place to live so that he could stay with Mom & Dad.

I'll spare you the details of how it all came about, but I'm essentially housesitting for an American in a beautiful western-remont apartment. After 6 months in my little room with my divan, computer, and books, I literally don't know what to do with myself here. I often get lost going from the bedroom to the kitchen, and by the time I open the fridge I've forgotten what I came for.

The kitchen is perhaps the best part of the outfit. As an amateur (but pretty darn good) chef, I've spent the last 6 months dreaming about the day when I would be liberated from my chains and could perform my usual culinary acrobatics once again in the kitchen. But mostly I was dreaming about the day when I could kiss instant mashed potatoes, undercooked kotlety, and dill goodbye.

The kitchen in my new apartment has everything I could ask for: razor-sharp German knives, beautiful French enameled cast-iron cookware, and a stove whose burners emit such a vigorous "WHOOSH!" upon lighting that my eyebrows flinch every time. At last, here is a canvas upon which I can paint my masterpieces of sauces, sides, and sautes!

Then why in God's name was the first thing I prepared yesterday PICKLES? That's right, I ran out to the nearest outdoor market and bought a kilogram of cucumbers, a forest's-worth of dill, and enough garlic to ward off every bad Dracula movie they've ever made. You see, host Mom had given me her "secret" recipe for lightly-salted pickles, and it is the only thing I've been able to think about since.

It doesn't stop there. This morning when I woke up, I bypassed the Corn Flakes in the cupboard and went straight for the kasha. Same stuff that's been set in front of me for six months, and on my first day of freedom it's the only thing that sounds good for breakfast. So I boil kasha for the first time, and it's wonderful! (I am proud to say that my kasha is better than host Mom's, which was always over-salted and overly mushy).

But wait, there's more! I just whipped up a batch of that shockingly pink salad that consists of grated beets, mayonnaise, and garlic. And my God, it's good!

And did I mention the salmon that's salting and curing in the fridge too?

What's happening to me? I thought maybe it was a one-time deal and that yesterday I had simply woken up on the Russian side of the bed (by which I mean the divan). But today it happened again: when I went to the western-style supermarket I found myself bypassing all the imported stuff and loading my cart with that nondescript Russian cheese, the plastic-cased sosiski (hot dogs), sushki, and a bottle of kvas for good measure.

I'm embarrassed to admit that the fridge now smells pretty much like it did back at host family's place, minus the really funky odors. But the powerful scent of dill, garlic, and beets fills the air and wafts through the kitchen every time I open the refrigerator door. I probably shouldn't be admitting this publicly, as the apartment owner is a regular reader of this blog, but I suppose they'll find out soon enough anyway. Sorry, A! I'll be sure to leave the pickle recipe for you as a peace offering!

I'm not really sure how to account for the dramatic shift in my tastes. After all, it was not long ago that I was berating Russian food and declaring that I could reasonably stand Russian food about once a year. One friend recently suggested that perhaps it was a case of culinary Stockholm syndrome, the condition whereby a hostage becomes emotionally attached to his captors. Suffice it to say that I've become emotionally attached to my pickles, kasha, and beet salad.

In fact, I think this is simply part of a larger phenomenon that has been developing inside of me for the last couple of months. I can honestly say that for the last couple of months here, I haven't just been surviving, which is how it felt during those first few dark, cold, lonely months. Rather, I feel like I've really been thriving here. Moscow has become comfortable, it has become welcoming, it has become home. Of course, Moscow hasn't become anything it wasn't already. The real change has been within myself as I stopped fighting the current and started swimming with it.

Of course, this transformation has partly been a change in attitude - things that once irritated me and occasionally even infuriated me now get brushed casually aside with the incredibly useful umbrella explanation, "well, that's Russia." And I can even laugh about some of these things now too. But perhaps equally important, I can give it right back now. When some 50 year-old pre-babushka tries to slip laterally into the line at the ticket window, I can sternly point behind me and tell her that THAT's the back of the line, and that we've all been waiting for a long time. In the past I would have just let her cut and fumed at her uncivil behavior. Similarly, I can argue with the woman selling tickets at the museum who insists on charging me the adult foreigner price despite the fact that I have a student ID card from a Russian university. Of course, she still gets her way, but at least I get some satisfaction by telling her she's the only cashier in Moscow who doesn't understand that foreigners can be students at Russian universities.

I think the root of this newfound acceptance of Russia and all her quirks is linguistic. After months languishing on a plateau, my Russian language abilities suddenly spiked upwards, making everything that much easier here. And so it's not just that I've learned to go with the flow and follow the current, but I've been given a paddle and can actually steer where I want.

And so, Russia has started to feel normal. It has started to feel right. Maybe this is a sign that it's time to go home, or maybe this is a reason to be sad: I'm finally hitting my stride, just a month before I'm due to leave. I find I'm having a harder and harder time coming up with things to write about, which is probably why my postings have dropped off a bit lately. That which was once foreign and worthy of satirical jest is just a part of normal life now, part of my life now. It is as if the barrier between the Self and the Other has started to dissolve, becoming equally a part of who I am.

But enough of all this philosophical mumbo jumbo. I have pickles to check on!